Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Voice from Ajami

For three years now I've been living in a neighborhood that gave its name to a cinematic sensation (technically across the street from it, but not in any more glorious surroundings). Itka moved here a year ago from another, equally interesting part of Jaffa. She one-upped me as an Ajamite, though: She actually watched the film.

So today, when my friend and hard-working journalist Anna Kemper wrote from Berlin, it was Itka she needed. Since Copti and Shani's "Ajami" got its Oscar nomination, Interest around it grew in Europe. Anna was looking for an insider's perspective and got perhaps more than she bargained for. I remember Itka returning from the cinema ill at ease after watching Ajami. Amidst the white noise of appreciation, she voiced reservation, having sensed a whiff of exploitation.

What she wrote today begs to be featured here as a guest text. Here it is, accompanied by photos both of us have taken over the past two years.

Dear Anna,

Had the film "Ajami" been given a different, fictional name and featured professional actors, I would say it's a good action movie, but "Ajami" is named after a real neighborhood in which I live, and features real people, whom I know. For this reason I felt a great discomfort watching it. I found the reality of Ajami to be distorted in the film in several ways.

There are many problems of violence in Ajami, but they are portrayed as being similar to those of any big city slum. The story here is different. The problems stem from the government's racist policies which define Israeli Arabs as 2nd degree citizens, and have contibuted to turning West Bank and Gaza Palestinians into the victims of human rights violations.

When the makers of Ajami reveal, they reveal partially. When they keep an issue hidden, it's hidden entirely. The biggest problem in Ajami today is the housing. This problem is not even mentioned in the film! during the war of 1948, many Arabs fled from their houses. Israel took possession of those houses. In most of them the government settled Jews and in some neighborhoods, such as Ajami and the old city of Acco, Arabs.

Since then, most of the houses in ajami belong to the state and the tenants are paying rent even if they used to own the house before the war. Today, the real estate sharks are discovering the nice, old beachfront neighborhood and are promoting a fast, cruel gentrification process in which a lot of the tenents are kicked out with no housing solution. the houses in north Ajami are now all gated mansions worth millions of dollars.

There's always been a Jewish minority in Ajami, living for the most part in peace with its neighbors. "Ajami" the film focuses on confrontations and tensions that exist between Jews and Arabs in Israel, But I find most relationships between the two groups in this specific neighborhood to be good and warm.

Yes, there's a crime issue here, and the usual baggage, but politically driven murders such as the one described in the film are exceedingly rare. Compared with mixed neighborhoods in such towns as Ramle and Lod, Ajami fares well. It is actually a good example of Arab/Jewish coexistance, if you rule out the yuppies that come to live in their palaces up north.

The main story, that of a teenage shot by mistake, is real. But Ajami has so many good things going for it. Good community life, solidarity, beautiful spots and a unique energy. Almost none of this is present in the film. The hardship of Ajami is caused by a political reason, and that isn't present in the film either. The filmmakers present real problems, but don't reveal their significant source. If they can't deal with these issues, they should have named the film "Faaadlu" and set it in some imaginary land.


Osnat Ita Skoblinski


ism said...

The same could be said about "city of god" or any other movie that portrays a story situated in a real place. The movie does not pertain to be a documentary in any way, just to simply draw from the reality of a place for the benefit of the story or message of the writer/director. I don't see why the director should be held responsible for portraying the "truth", whatever perspective or ideology that "truth" is drawn from. You can claim reality is intentionally skewed there, but claiming it has no legitimacy to do so based on the notion that it doesn't show the "right" political reasons is devoid of artistic and literary tolerance. Personally I think It's a pretty good crime drama that takes advantage of its locality, something which is quite rare for Israeli cinema.

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

I believe her point is that there's something cheap in using Jewish/Arab tensions to make a "good crime drama" unless you tell the truth about how things came to be this way.

Israel has crime infrcted neighborhoods that resmeble others in the world. Ajami isn't one of them. For years it was known as "the ghetto" because Only there Arabs were allowed to live, among houses ruined in the war, under martial law.

Sometime, failing to point a finger is avoiding responsibility. Ajami is cursed becuase the governenment took possesion of all the land and the people live there on "borrowed time", which began to run out just before the film was made. Who can make a film about it, using its name, without telling that?

ism said...

Following that logic there is something dishonest about making a crime movie involving black americans without referring to slavery or something inherently wrong about making a movie about the russian mob without referring to the fall of the soviet union.

Every piece of fiction draws from reality and reshapes it to fit the expression of the director or for the mere drama of the story itself. Ajami might not be a "crime" neighborhood, but I don't think that diminishes the legitimacy of using its character to make a crime movie. Tel Sheva and Ramle/Lod are also featured in that movie, and their character was also grossly altered to fit the story.

Failing to point a finger is avoiding responsibility? who's? the director? Does the sum of zionist wrongdoings fall in his lap? Is he a government agent set with an official agenda? I wonder if you would voice the same opinion about Jenin-Jenin, Or another left-oriented movie that actually does try to have an overt political view, unlike Ajami.

I'm not going against your view of the history and state of Ajami, nor against the wrongs that happened and happen there (I happen to agree with them), not even against the fact that you call these views "the truth" without a grain of afterthought. I'm going against the notion that you say a movie is cheap, dishonest and exploitative for the mere fact it doesn't have the content and view you want it to have.

Osnatita said...

I have all tolerance for artistic expression. The problem is that this movie, using real people, recreating real crimes, shooting in a real place and calling it by it's name is partially documentary and by that has an obligation for a truth, Even an ideological truth. When one sees merry poppins in london one understand it's a fiction, when you see Ajami, you don't. and here lies the problem.

You said: "draw from the reality of a place for the benefit of the story"

How does the movie benefits ajami?

And how would you call a situation when you benefit from something and give back nothing but a bad rep?

ism said...

A movie is not created for the benefit of its story subjects, it is made for the benefit of the viewer. You can say any movie that has a grain of reality in it is exploiting that reality.

How would I call a situation when you benefit from something and give back nothing but a bad rep?

Heck, I'd call it the entire Israeli film industry. Preoccupied with its liberal agenda and paid for by the state itself. Would you want the state of Israel to stop sponsoring art because it gives nothing of value back( I would, but that's a different story )?